Monday, March 31, 2014

In 2007, a 26-year-old Chicagoan named John Maloof was working on a book about Chicago history. Maloof lived across the street from an auction house that was selling a stash of several thousand old negatives shot by a Chicago photographer several decades earlier. The auction house had acquired the negatives from a storage locker after the photographer had let the locker's account go delinquent. Maloof thought the negatives might be helpful for his book project, so he bought them for $380.

When Maloof looked at the negatives, he was quickly struck by how evocative they were. The photographer — a total unknown named Vivian Maier, who died shortly after Maloof acquired the negatives — clearly had a special feel for street photography. Her senses of framing, composition, portraiture, storytelling, pathos, and wit were all superb. But Maloof couldn't find any information about her. It appeared that none of her work, including the photos Maloof had acquired, had ever been exhibited or published. The more Maloof looked at the photos, the more convinced he became that he'd stumbled upon the work of a major overlooked artist. His hunch became even stronger when he scanned some of the negatives and posted them on Flickr, where they immediately generated lots of very positive response. (That's one of Maier's photos shown above, and the other photos scattered throughout this entry are hers as well.)

Thus began John Maloof's trip down a deep, deep rabbit hole that continues to this day. He has essentially become the chief custodian and cheerleader of Vivian Maier's legacy. Or, to put it another way, he's devoted his life to hers. Along the way he learned that Maier spent most of her adult life employed as a nanny, so he interviewed many of the families that hired her, including some of the now-grown children she looked after. He also visited her family's ancestral village in France. And he sought out and acquired thousands and thousands of additional Maier negatives (many of them salvaged from another storage locker she left behind), along with hundreds of rolls of film that she shot but never got around to developing (ditto). In short, Maloof is trying to be as encyclopedic about Vivian Maier as he can be. But there are still many pieces of the puzzle that he hasn't yet been able to put together, because Maier was intensely secretive and seriously eccentric. Among other things, she appears to have had a hoarding disorder. (Storage lockers and hoarding — this story reads like a reality TV treatment.)

This odd backstory has probably helped Maloof's efforts to promote Maier's work, because it adds an element of intrigue. In any case, the art world has embraced Maier's photography, which is now compared to the works of Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and other great American populist photographers. Maloof has successfully shepherded her photos into an assortment of gallery shows, book projects, and more. Prints of her work, sold by a New York gallery that has partnered with Maloof, now sell for prices starting at about $1800.

And now there's new documentary film called Finding Vivian Maier. I saw it last Saturday and was blown away. It's a great story, superbly told. If you're into found objects and PermaRec-ish stories, it's absolutely essential viewing — don't miss. (As a bonus, Maloof, who co-directed the film, was on hand at the screening I attended, so I got to hear some of his commentary and participate in a short Q&A session he conducted.) Here, take a couple of minutes to check out the trailer:

Some of you may be thinking, "This Maloof guy is just profiting off of this dead woman's work. That's exploitation!" That's an understandable gut reaction, but I don't think it's accurate. While I could be wrong, I don't get the impression that Maloof is getting rich off of any of this (he needed a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the documentary), especially since a lot of the money that comes in from sales of Maier's prints is getting rolled back into the project's overhead (Maloof still has thousands of negatives to scan and hundreds of rolls of film to develop). I do think he's making a living off of all this, and good for him — that's a fair trade for the time and energy he's invested. It's pretty clear to me that he cares deeply about Maier and her work, and that he's made some pretty serious sacrifices to devote himself to this project. He didn't go looking to acquire something valuable. But once he realized what he had, he felt (and still feels) a strong responsibility to bring it to light and share it with the world. By his own account, he's also fairly obsessive, so it's his nature to keep following the rabbit hole, wherever it leads.

I relate to all of this. When I found the Manhattan Trade School report cards in that discarded file cabinet years ago, I knew had to do something with them — that was the responsibility I took on when I grabbed the cards. Frankly, given how important I think the report cards are, part of me feels a little ashamed for not having made them a full-time pursuit, the way Maloof has done with Maier's photography. I respect and admire how far he's taken this project.

Anyway: If you want to know more about Maier and her photography, look here. Meanwhile, Finding Vivian Maier is tremendous. See it!

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